Fiction or fantasy?

I’ve written often, ad nauseam some will probably say, about young adult readers, who they are, and does it matter. For a change, I thought I’d dip into another questionable category that I have trouble with—fantasy. Fiction is opposed to fact. Logically, all made-up writing is fiction, stuff that didn’t happen and, in some cases, never could happen because the situations described are so ludicrous. Yet there exists a category known as fantasy in which things that didn’t happen and possibly never could happen are segregated from other unbelievable, unrealistic fictions.
So, what’s the difference between fiction and fantasy? The notion of acceptable and unacceptable reality has never existed in children’s literature. Not even in the days when there were just children and adults, and young adults hadn’t been invented. In children’s literature it has always been accepted that wardrobes might lead into magical worlds, you could have wrinkles in time, and visitors from parallel worlds are reasonably common. They are all just STORIES.
Probably most adults believe in the supernatural, and I include God and angels in this bracket. They believe in things they haven’t seen, that defy the laws of logic and physics. People gamble on lucky numbers, wear lucky charms, recite lucky incantations. We don’t believe in coincidence. Since forever, human beings have invented and woven, mysteries, legends, impossible stories around rocks, rivers, memorable people and events. That is how stories began.
Something has changed in our perception of reality. As far as literature is concerned, reality is not real unless it is so absolutely familiar as to be on the limit of boring. Literary fiction has to be so founded in what most of us have either experienced or can imagine experiencing in the ordinary run of events, as to be almost predictable. The ‘might have been’, the ‘could be’, the ‘wouldn’t it be wonderful if’ have no place in the new definition of literature. The pure, cold beauty of the language, the way phrases are constructed, replaces the wild flights of fancy of the old storytellers. Introversion and dreary interior monologues on interminable journeys to nowhere have replaced escapes from enemies with incredible superpowers, elopements and betrayals, curses, compromises, battles, wars and adventures in the shape of birds and animals. This ‘realistic’ school of fiction is the one that is equated with ‘literary’. Everything else is ‘genre’ and considerably lower down the food chain.
If you look at the Amazon classification of such flights of magical fantasy as The Earthsea Cycle, you will find that the words ‘literary fiction’ are far more in evidence than the word ‘fantasy’. Same for The Handmaid’s Tale. ‘Dystopian’ doesn’t even figure. They are classics, therefore they cannot be lumbered with the slightly pejorative epithet of ‘fantasy’. I don’t mind admitting that The Green Woman series and The Pathfinders are fantasy since most stories are pure fantasy. It would be nice, though, to think that this admission wasn’t tantamount to agreeing that I write second-rate literature.
What do you think? It ain’t what you write it’s the way that you write it?

This post wouldn’t be complete without a plug for my books, would it?
Why not try The Dark Citadel for starters. It’s only 99c/p and it might change your life 🙂



The Author Hot Seat with David Higgins: We didn’t have genre when I was young

David Higgins is my guest today, a short story writer who has found that the problem of fitting into the category straight-jacket is amplified when your short stories aren’t all in the same style. Here’s how Dave copes with the conundrum and gives us his take on the genre monster.

Dave - Mugshot

Genre didn’t exist when I was young.

While I became aware of genre later (and that other people might be more guided by it) I never let it constrain my reading choices. So it came as a surprise to me when I planned my first release, quite how obsessed the publishing and distribution industry was with genre. And that, for every issue novels faced due to genre, there were twice as many for short story collections.

When I say genre didn’t exist when I was young, I mean of course that I had no reason to care about it when I was a child. The Children’s section of the library in my home town was divided into picture books and other books: the Hungry Caterpillar was separate from Anne of Green Gables; but Enid Blyton was on the same shelves as Andre Norton. I have a vague recollection of a Young Adult classification, but as a sticker on the spine not a defined set of shelves.

My first encounter with genre was when I moved into the Adult shelves: some of the authors who wrote books on both sides of the quasi-arbitrary Adult/Child line were shelved in a special area; others weren’t; and some were shelved in more than one place.

In the decades between moving into the Adult shelves and preparing to publish, my sense of genre as a limitation had almost entirely died. Therefore, it came as a surprise that the most common advice I received when I mentioned publishing to other authors was,“get the genre classification right: books listed in the wrong genre or without a strong genre don’t sell at all.”

As my first publication was Fauxpocalypse, an anthology of short works set after a predicted global disaster didn’t happen, this proved to be quite a puzzler: some of the contributors had written thrillers; some had written horror; some had focused on the external effects of the oncoming threat; some had focused only tangentially referred to social upheaval.

Fauxpocalypse - Front Cover 72dpi

With some retailers giving me only one space for category, I felt real pressure to pick the best fit. But going through the classic genre and sub-genre options, I almost immediately realised it didn’t quite fit most of the options: it wasn’t all horror, or all sci-fi, or all mystery, or all anything.

The options that did fit the entire collection didn’t really seem utterly helpful. It was a fiction anthology, but what did that actually tell the reader about it? Was there any purpose in using up my one chance at finding readers who did confine themselves to a few shelves by defining it as a ‘short-story collection’?

In the end, the best fit was Post-Apocalyptic fiction: in the hope that readers would find similar interest in a world that didn’t end.

The overall experience of publishing Fauxpocalypse having not put me off writing all together, I went through my list of work to decide on a new project. I had a number of short stories that had been published in obscure places where I had the anthology rights. Having read many collections of authors’ republished works over the decades, I decided to release An Unquiet Calm, a collection of my own work.

I assumed it would be easier to publish a collection entirely of my own short stories. Ironically, listing it was much harder, for more than one reason.

Where Fauxpocalypse was defined by a common world that would – potentially imperfectly – fit a genre, An Unquiet Calm was defined by all being written by me. There were themes that were common to my writing, and personality types I favoured slightly for characters, but the tropes and settings were varied.

The high church of Literature aside, there are no categories for an author’s specific perspectives on life redrawn as fiction.

And many people who divide fiction into Literature and not, use the division to mean ‘proper fiction’ and ‘speculative fiction’. Thus, as I do write in worlds of science-fiction, fantasy, or horror, Literature didn’t seem ideal either.

Even splitting my collection into science-fiction and not, or any other genre and not, I couldn’t build a collection long enough to be more than a pamphlet.

I was rescued from this metaphysical headache by the discovery of an unspoken rule about genre: “if it sort of fits it might be fine”; my collection would not fail utterly if it was in a genre that didn’t fit one of the stories.

With two collections fitted into the boxes of genre, I thought I had a handle on the issues. So I expanded my reach from the established distributors to more innovative start-ups: lenders of eBooks, and crowd-pricing sites.

With the issue of a physical book having to be in a single place at any one time not present, and the massive power of search engines to leverage, I expected these online models to offer both readers and publishers a new flexibility, and some did.

However, I also found a new set of mandatory boxes: What is the romance level of the book? What is the profanity level of the book? What race is the protagonist? What religion is the protagonist? Where is the book set?

Some apply as easily to a collection as a novel: the profanity, gore, and sex filters are much more likely to be activated by people who wish to avoid them, so can be set to the worst case of all the stories.

But the religion or setting of the book? One of my stories deals with a man wrestling with God’s goodness in an imperfect world, so might be of interest to people who include Christianity in their search; but the remainder of the collection isn’t Christian, so isn’t necessarily what people who exclude Christian protagonists are seeking to avoid. And the locations and time periods are even more diverse: modern day Yorkshire, 1950’s West Country, fantasy Northern Europe, &c.

When I first mentioned I was writing short stories, several people commented it would never produce a career because people don’t read collections of short stories. Having published two collections, I am lead to wonder whether it is not a dislike of short stories but an inability to find them that is stopping the collections being read.

As long as libraries and book shops have a physical presence (and I hope it this will be a long time), there will be a need for a label to physically sort books, but by taking the genre model into the realm of detailed searches and extending the constraints rather than the options, distributors make it harder for authors and for readers.

So I hope the vast potential of online distribution will allow a return to that innocence of childhood: when we can find adult stories about a princess who is both a ninja and an elephant as easily as stories about a space captain who is different but not too different from the space captains of other books.
* * * *

Thank you, Dave for adding another point to the growing list of problems writers have with the publishing industry’s mania for classification and sub-classification. Short story collections start off with the handicap that everybody *knows* nobody reads them. Tell people that often enough and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’d be interested to hear how you get on with promoting your work. Thanks again for an entertaining and instructive article.

Dave Higgins has worked in law and IT for both public and private sector organisations. When not pursuing these hobbies, he writes poetry and (mostly) speculative fiction.

He was born in Wiltshire, England. Raised by a librarian, he started reading shortly after birth and has not stopped since. He currently lives in Bristol with his wife, Nicola, his cats, Jasper and Una, and many shelves of books.

More details on Fauxpocalypse, An Unquiet Calm, other publications, and free samples of his work can be found here.

He can also be found on various social media:
Twitter: @David_J_Higgins
Google+: +DaveHiggins
Pinterest: davidjhiggins


Author hot seat: That was nice. What was it?

Lesley Hayes is my first guest in this series of interviews, and she and I are going to thrash out the problem I evoked in my introduction earlier in the month. Actually we’re going to do it in two rounds, with an intermission so you can make yourselves a cup of tea, because we have been rather long-winded.
I invited authors whose writing doesn’t fit into a particular category to stand up and explain themselves, because sometimes getting noticed feels like bashing your head against a brick wall—you don’t make any impression, but you give yourself a lot of pain.
I started writing what I thought my adolescent children would like to read, given the complaints they voiced about what was on offer. Fair enough, you say. However, I live in France, i.e. surrounded by French people who speak and read in French. My children go to French schools; their friends are French. I sit in my corner scribbling away (in English) at what I want to write with not much hope that anybody in my immediate neighbourhood is ever going to read it.
What I write is my personal take on the world—its problems and some of the solutions to them. The people who have read what I write praise it, but very few of them found the book for themselves. If I hadn’t shoved it in front of them they would never have picked it up.
The characters I write about are nothing like either Harry Potter or Catniss Thingy. They are like the people I know. I hate sword-wielding heroines, princes of the blood, and the gang with a collection of super powers that between them make Star Wars look like a game of tiddley winks. When you write in the fantasy genre that’s a problem. No sparkle, no hot romantic interest, no exiled princes or half-dressed women warriors and you’re on a sticky wicket. And I don’t think I’m alone.

If the titles tickle your fancy they’re available here and here

So, here’s Lesley

J: Lesley, what made you decide to write, what do you write about?

L: Thanks for the opportunity to share my own experience with you, Jane. I describe on my website ( my early predilection for writing. I don’t think it was then so much a decision as an instinct. From an incredibly young age I was already writing stories. I was an only child, and I think it may have been a form of escape into an alternative world. I also loved words, the sound of them, the rhythm of language, and the secret magic of the metaphor. I wrote poetry as well as stories, and every so often throughout the years a poem has come, fully formed, intruding into ordinary consciousness like a dream, expressing a truth demanding to be told. The stories I write are always primarily about relationships – my greatest fascination since childhood. Family dynamics were the breeding ground for my nuanced observations.
Much of the action in my novels takes place in the mind and the interactions of the characters. I want to know them and discover their motivations, and I have to write the novel in order to find out. Long before I trained to become a psychotherapist I was already a psychologist and a deep thinking philosopher. I didn’t need books to teach me these subjects. It came naturally to me. I was blessed or cursed with an inquiring mind. It’s what has continued to intrigue and drive me, throughout my career as a therapist and now that I have returned to writing fiction.

J: Has your writing style/genre thrown up any problems?

L: The issue of genre and whether or not square pegs can fit into round holes, I don’t see so much as a problem as a phenomenon of our times. Back in the day, when I was being published by actual publishers and had an actual agent, there was always a certain amount of categorisation, but it seems to me that this has become more fixed in today’s market, and especially in the world of self-publishing. The very idea of self-publishing was anathema to ‘serious writers’ when I was writing fiction twenty years ago. I think there is still a degree of sneering that goes on, and darkly muttered indictments referring to ‘vanity publishing.’
This casts something of a pall over serious writers who have chosen to self-publish because they see this is the way the trend is going, now that increasing numbers of publishers have their backs to the wall.

J: There is certainly a lot to wade through if a reader is trawling the Amazon categories. In one way it makes sense to have signposts to guide readers, in another it doesn’t allow for the books that don’t fit. I mean, what is General Fiction supposed to mean? It certainly doesn’t conjure up the idea of a book that breaks the mould. More likely the book that will bore you to death.

L: My novels have always fought against being categorised, much as I have in the rest of my life. Who wants to be put in a box that defines them before they are truly known? My stories aren’t romances, although I do write about love. They aren’t erotic fiction although I don’t shy away from describing scenes of sexual intimacy when the storyline requires it. They couldn’t be described as historical, fantasy, vampire, zombie or thriller fiction – although since someone who read The Drowned Phoenician Sailor said it was a kind of psychological thriller, I loosely accepted that label. So that leaves me in the vast uncharted and frequently unexplored waters of ‘General Fiction’. I write literary novels that have a good story, strong characterisation, a fully worked out plot and a point to make. However, I haven’t been on Big Brother or had my own cookery programme or otherwise developed a fan base, so entering the world of mainstream publishing is these days no easy task.

J: How did you set about getting published? Was it the usual round of agents and publishers?

L: After completing The Drowned Phoenician Sailor I tried for a year to find an agent to represent me. I approached every agent out there who purported to have interest in my kind of fiction. My previous agent had retired, much as I now had from psychotherapy practice, and to begin with I still believed that you needed an agent to knock on publishers’ doors. The ones who replied to my submissions were enthusiastic about the quality of my writing but all said they were only able to take on one or two new authors a year, and sadly (they always said sadly) this wasn’t going to be me. “But keep trying to find someone to represent you,” they all said. “I’m sure you will.” They didn’t add wryly: “And good luck with that…” although I suspect they probably thought it. All this time my son kept saying: “You don’t need an agent, you don’t need a publisher. Look at the way the world is now. In a few years everyone will have a kindle. It’s the PC revolution all over again. People are even reading books on their iPhones. Find out how to publish through Amazon.” So eventually I took the plunge.

On that cliff-hanger we will take a break. INTERMISSION


Or if you’d rather


J: Self publishing is the obvious way round the problem of the gatekeepers, but it does mean the entire burden of both publishing and promotion is on the author.

L: Without an agent and a publisher you must rapidly learn all the skills of an additional career in advertising. Self-promotion doesn’t come easily for a writer – not for this writer, anyway. Basically, what I really want to be doing is writing, not all this social networking and casting my bread upon the waters – the oceanic waters I might add – of twitter and facebook. I’ve met some great people – albeit in passing, mostly – on both, but I don’t know that all this tweeting and retweeting and shouting out: “Look at me, over here!” in the crowded twitter marketplace is actually having any effect, except that the people following me are probably bored to the brim with the constant repetition.

J: As you say, the line between promotion and harassment is a very fine one. But if you don’t push yourself forward who is going to notice you? Just waiting politely at the back might be very British but it won’t sell your books. The sheer volume of fiction available is staggering, and much of it is annoyingly awful.

L: I guess the biggest shock for me, having originally embarked on self-publishing as a kind of experiment, has been to discover there the magnitude of badly edited, badly written, misspelt, ungrammatical and carelessly plotted books claiming to be best-sellers. Anyone can publish a book on kindle and take on the mantle of ‘author’. But I don’t see them as competition. The world is plenty big enough for books that suit all kinds of audiences, and for me that’s just a sad reflection of how low the bar is set for a lot of readers. The difficulty seems to be that with all of that jostling for space beside other genuinely well written books as well as the dross, becoming visible is an incredible challenge. There is no filter separating the good from the bad. Fortunately Amazon have had the foresight to offer a “Look inside” feature, so that you can check out within the first few paragraphs, or sentences in some cases, whether the self-proclaimed author lives up to that title. My confidence has been restored in coming across a few books that have impressed me enough to put on my own kindle. Usually they also defy categorisation, or sit uneasily between several genres.

J: But the idle Amazon browsers have to find you before they even get to the stage of ‘looking inside’. The first stumbling block to recognition must be deciding how you’re going to categorise your book, before you even decide which reviewers might be interested. Because reviews are all-important in helping to get your book on the map.

L: Real reviews, of course. Do you want to sell your soul for the dubious prize of buying in a load of fake ‘reviews’ by people who haven’t actually read the book? Some people do, and the more reviews you have, the higher up the Amazon visibility charts you will rise.
My first novel has accrued 8 genuine reviews, the last time I counted – my first short story collection has 4. Since I know they are authentic, I feel good about them, yet I’m so far out of the Amazon best-seller list that I might as well be a minor planet circling a distant star in a galaxy far far away. I am not even a blip on the radar – in spite of all my dedicated marketing in the twittersphere.

J: But that hasn’t stopped you writing.

L: As a writer, I would write anyway. All the years that I wasn’t writing fiction but listening to other people’s real and often harrowing stories, I wrote extensively in my journal. It was something I simply had to do, the same way I need to regularly discharge all the usual bodily functions. I won’t go into details. But it would be dishonest to say I only write for myself. I want to share my novels and short stories. I want them to have value for other people as well as for me. I want to give pleasure through them and know that I’ve succeeded. I’m not in it for the money or the fame (I would run a mile from that) but for the quiet satisfaction of knowing that other people recognised my talent for what it is and were moved, touched, inspired and entertained by it.

I’m sure many of us can empathise with that final message. Thank you Lesley for such an entertaining chat. I know it has given me food for thought.
Go to Lesley’s blog ( to read more about her writing, and her books can all be found on Amazon

Lit fic versus genre

Inspired by an article pointed out to me by Mary Meddlemore, I thought I’d resurrect the debate about genre versus literary fiction, and whether there is a difference at all. One of the suggestions made in Friedman’s article was that literary fiction is more difficult to write because all of the situations have to be invented by the author; she can’t rely on tropes because for literary fiction there aren’t any.

There are several things here that needle me. Leaving aside the rather arrogant assumptions behind it, who says that tropes only apply to ‘genre’ fiction? And how is it easier to write a good story that falls into a ‘genre’ category? The last point is slightly more metaphysical, but isn’t there a case for arguing that all fiction falls into one genre or another?

No tropes in lit fic? How about the battered wife, the abused child, the quest for self/fulfilment/the meaning of life/paradise/some other navel-gazing quest? How about the family saga? The marriage breakdown? Unhappiness in all its forms? Once you get your head round the notion that it has all been said before, usually by Homer, it’s easy to accept that if you scratch deep enough you find that one writer’s original subject is another’s trope. A trope is after all just the use of figurative language. Irony, allegory, metaphors, literary devices, all clichés fit into the definition.

Easier to write ‘genre’ because it’s full of ready-made tropes? LotR then was pretty easy-peasy as a writing effort compared with some of the more mind-numbingly boring productions of the nouveau roman, where the aim is to have nothing whatsoever happen at all. The point is surely that it is hard to write a GOOD novel, whatever category it falls into.

Everything but lit fic is ‘genre’? I’m not a philosopher, but from the outside, that looks like nonsense. Looks very much like another way of saying lit fic is a genre, but the only worthwhile genre. So, since most writers write about the epoch they grew up in, by the end of a writing career, they are often writing twenty or thirty years out of date. Does that make them historical novels? Is a fantasy written by an Oxford don somehow not a fantasy because he is a member of the intellectual establishment? Is Jane Austen really chic lit? She must at least fit into Regency Romance. Where do you put Shakespeare? The plays are all historical, alternate history, historical fantasy, paranormal fantasy, romance, comedy or horror. Yet they strike me a being pretty literary.

Much of this debate seems like a game of moving goal posts, depending on who wrote the story. Is C.S. Lewis a fantasy writer? Is García Márques? Lit fic people like to remind us that all books have to be pigeon-holed in a genre box for the sake of marketing, the sous entendu being that all boxes are inferior to the lit fic box. All of these genres (except lit fic) are broken into a plethora of sub genres, so within fantasy you can have a YA paranormal fairytale with vampires and zombie werewolf fantasy genre. Marketing on Amazon can get pretty specific, but the lit fic section remains vast, rambling, and inviolable.

Perhaps it would be more useful and logical to do away with literary fiction altogether. The argument then wouldn’t be about what books are allowed into the Holy of Holies, the literary fiction category, but which genre each aspiring lit fic book really falls into. If you look hard enough you’ll find that each and every one of them fits into a ‘genre’, and the names of some of those genres will not be very flattering.

What’s your genre?

I was reading an article on a friend’s blog today about that much-discussed subject: genre. There was a time when the classification of book types was sort of instinctive. There were books for adults and books for children. Within the adult books there was literature, books for the ‘serious’ reader, with sober covers; and there were the books for people who read books in much the same way they eat a packet of crisps, for the simple, easy, accessible pleasure of it. Often they had easily recognisable covers: pink for romances, black for crime, and great big font for airport thrillers. You knew where you were.

Not so anymore. Now there is a plethora of genres, and subgenres, and each is supposed to have its own market. They are not watertight; there is some leakage on either side, but each category is supposed to have its own target group of readers, and to approach them accordingly.

It makes things easy for booksellers. The author/publisher specifies the genre and the bookseller sticks the book on the right shelf, or under the same electronic heading. It makes it easier for readers to go straight to their preferred fantasy genre without having to plough through the nineteenth century classics, the spy thrillers or the bodice-rippers. The fans of epic fantasy aren’t distracted by the steampunk, zombie, or dystopian selections, and the legal minors will be safely diverted to YA paranormal and away from the adult vampires. For people who like sorting things, I can see the attraction, but to get to this kind of precision implies authors producing books that fit into a very specific category and have a very specific age group in mind.

Something that Mary Meddlemore said in her blog post about stories being stories, not genres, made me think that this analysis hits the nail on the head. Despite what agents and publishers require, that the author have a very clear idea of who their book is intended for, and know exactly which category it fits into, they are still just stories. They are inspired by all sorts of things, and pour out as they think fit. A story doesn’t hesitate on the edges of the imagination, undecided about whether it’s suitable for the under sixteens, or whether there is enough retro stuff in it for it to be considered steampunk. It just comes out and gets written.

Any insistence on the genre, the age group, or the fantasy type; pinning down into a definite genre a thriller/horror/paranormal/mystery, is to enter into the realms of marketing, and not writing. I know, who doesn’t market doesn’t sell, but there must be a better way of ‘selling’ a story that by sticking a label on it. ‘Ballet Shoes’ has a precise target readership of young girls who aspire to be ballet dancers. But it is rarely so easy. Where would you stick “The Call of the Wild” for example? YA dogs?

© Richard Bartz, Munich Makro Freak
© Richard Bartz, Munich Makro Freak